Boris Rubenstein was interviewed by Christa Whitney on May 15, 2011 at the Yiddish Book Center.
Boris Rubinstein, child and adolescent psychiatrist, grew up in Mexico City, Mexico. He explained that both his father and mother immigrated from Eastern Europe—Poland and Ukraine—to Mexico City. His father left Eastern Europe as a teenager, while his mother left as a young child, both following family members across the ocean. His uncle had a sock factory, and Boris remembers going once a year to get his year’s supply of socks, many of which were argyle. Passover was the biggest event of the year for his family; he remembers that taking an afternoon nap was necessary to get through the celebration that lasted into the early hours of the morning. He remembers how his entire family would gather—30-40 people—and read the entire Haggadah in Hebrew. Songs were an important part of the tradition, too; each year the celebration would get longer, with the addition of new songs, in Hebrew, Yiddish, and even Ladino from a Sephardic uncle.
Boris remembers his entire world being Jewish in his youth. He doesn’t remember having any non-Jewish friends until medical school. Yiddish was the language his parents, grandparents, and great-grandmother spoke, but he didn’t want to associate with it, considering it the “language of galut,” especially after he became involved in the Zionist youth movement. Boris describes his neighborhood in Mexico City and the geographical closeness of his extended family before describing his numerous moves throughout Mexico.
Boris goes on to discuss some of the various Jewish schools in Mexico, including his school, El Colegio Hebreo Tarbut, where he was immersed in Jewish history, learned about Israel, and became quite fluent in Hebrew. Boris provides immense detail about what he learned at school and how it impacted him as both a child and as an adult. Boris describes his connection to Yiddish in more detail before explaining his involvement in Jewish youth groups. He then takes time to detail the importance of his Mexican heritage, which includes descriptions of food, holidays, political movements, and newspapers.
At age 16, Boris headed off to Israel for a year. He initially had difficulty convincing his parents to allow him to go, but once his older sister returned from her year there, he remembers how she helped him convince his parents. He recalled being seasick the entire two-week journey on the S.S. [Tsion] from New York City to Haifa, but remembers waking up early the day they were to arrive to watch from the deck as the coastline appeared. He describes his year in Israel as “paradise,” sharing stories about his Hebrew classes, Israeli newspapers and radio, the Eichmann trial, his Israeli dance lessons, and work on a number of different kibbutzim.
Having spent the majority of the interview discussing his early life, Boris goes on to discuss his life today. He shares the story of how he got engaged to his wife and moved to the United States. His moves from Mexico to Boston to New York saw the addition of two children, a medical degree, and a growing interest in Jewish religious life, which led Boris to become the president of his shul and his wife to become a rabbi. Boris shares stories of his children’s varying interests in Jewish life and how those developed into their professional lives.
The last portion of the interview begins with a detailed analysis of the differences between being Jewish in Mexico versus being Jewish in the United States. Boris specifically discusses Jewish particularism and Jewish secularism. As the interview wraps up, Boris explains the feelings many Ashkenazi Jews had about Sephardim before explaining how the Mexican Jewish community has changed. Indeed, today it is even possible to find Jewish Mexican food like kosher mole. The interview ends with Boris sharing the values he hopes to pass on to his children and grandchildren, including his advice to preserve Jewish heritage.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story